AUSTIN — Texas needs to find up to $3.2 billion in the next three years to provide special education services to students who were previously denied them.

A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation and a subsequent federal audit found that the Texas Education Agency illegally set up an 8.5 percent benchmark, or de-facto cap, on the number of students receiving special education services. The cap was in place for more than a decade, and was well below the national average of 13 percent.

In eliminating that cap, state officials estimate that it will cost the state billions of dollars to provide special education services to an additional 189,000 students who need them.

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The state legislature eliminated caps on special education services last year, and the federal government is requiring school districts to evaluate students with special needs and offer compensatory services. As more students are identified, the state will have to pay for those resources. TEA officials told a group of lawmakers last week that it estimates the state will need an additional $682 million for special education services in fiscal year 2019, an additional $1 billion in 2020 and $1.55 billion in 2021. That’s more than $3.2 billion in the next three years.

“The truth is that children with disabilities have borne the brunt of spending cuts in special education, early childhood intervention and Medicaid for many years,” said Cheryl Fries, a co-founder of the Texans for Special Education Reform and a parent of a child with disabilities. “Though the price of providing those services sounds high, the cost of not providing them over the long run is much higher to society, both fiscally and morally.”

It’s potentially a staggering new cost for a state that has cut its share of education spending over the past decade, and it will throw a wrench in lawmakers’ budget plans for next year. The legislature is already grappling with major obligations such as paying more than $2.2 billion for Hurricane Harvey recovery and a $2.5 billion Medicaid bill.

TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said the agency will have a better grasp on projected costs after school districts submit their enrollment numbers to the state in October. In the 2017-2018 school year, the state budgeted $5.1 billion to provide special education services to 477,281 students, or 9.2 percent of all students, state records show.

School districts expect more special education costs, too

The percentage of students receiving special education is expected to climb to nearly 12.3 percent by 2021.

“Until we have real enrollment numbers, they are going to remain estimated costs,” Callahan said.

Steven Aleman, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, said it’s difficult to know for sure how many more students will be eligible to receive special education, but he is certain the number will grow. The organization was one of the first to raise concerns about the cap.

“We will trust that lawmakers will take seriously their duty to provide adequate resources for each eligible student with a disability a quality education,” Aleman said.

TEA has already committed more than $200 million over the next five years to increase school monitoring, hire more staff and increase family engagement as part of a federally-mandated action plan. The state is now hiring more staff members to put its plan in place. The newly-released estimates do not include the costs for students who will receive compensatory resources after being wrongly denied special education in the past.

Even if the state finds and approves the $3.2 billion in additional special education funding for districts, Guy Sconzo, former Humble ISD superintendent and executive director of the Coalition for Fast-Growth School Districts, said it won’t be enough to cover all the expenses school districts will face in expanding their special education programs.

Texas does not cover the cost of educating each student in special education, Sconzo said, leaving districts to make up the difference. Then there will be additional costs associated with hiring notoriously hard-to-find special education teachers and auxiliary staff members including speech pathologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists. Schools will also likely need to create more classroom space that can accommodate students in special education.

“All it does is it places another layer on local school districts, forcing them to either cut budgets to accommodate the changes or turn to local taxpayers and ask for more in local property taxes, which no one wants, including the Legislature,” Sconzo said. “But every time the Legislature doesn’t fund what they should be funding, there’s no other place to get the money.”

But Daniel McIlduff, assistant superintendent for educational support services at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said his district has already received some additional federal grant funds from the TEA. The district has not yet hired any additional staff members because he does not know how many eligible students will come forward when school starts on Aug. 27.

“At this point, no one has a crystal ball or knows what this will look like year one, year two or year three,” McIlduff said. “Are we preparing campuses? Absolutely, we’re training people on how to handle parent requests. But we don’t know what will happen until we get into this process.”

The $3.2 billion projections were presented to a group of lawmakers and education officials examining education finance reform. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston and the Chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he has asked TEA to “give us backup, show how you got this number.”

Leo Lopez, TEA’s chief school finance officer, said the department estimated the increase in special education enrollment based on “conversations with our TEA staff, and what they are seeing in the field.”

“Then we ran those increase percentages though our state funding model,” Lopez said.

Among the students denied special education services was Roanin Walker, whose mother, Heidi, pulled him out of Humble ISD schools after officials refused to evaluate him two years ago. Heidi now home-schools the 9-year-old and has noticed vast improvement in her sensory-sensitive son’s behavior. Still, he has anxiety from his time in school, when he was suspended multiple times for outbursts and labeled as a troublemaker by teachers.

She has no plans to allow Roanin to return to public schools, especially after speaking with parents who say they are still fighting to get resources for their children with autism.

“I don’t think they’re equipped to deal with him,” Walker said. “I’m not going to gamble his emotional health on whether the school will do what’s right, especially when you still hear about what’s happening.”

© 2018 Houston Chronicle
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